(My first cup of tea when I arrived home, it has never tasted so good)
I arrived back in Buxton 2 am on a Thursday morning. I was knackered and pleased to be finally headed to my own bed. After an hour or so sleep I woke up really hot, I wasn’t used to sleeping inside, so opened the window and fell instantly back asleep. The following morning I awoke with the window open to a warm, damp British summer. Looking from the window out over the green hills of the peak district was like sensory overload!
Taking it back a week, from Moron where I left my bike I travelled some 2500km over around 45 hours on busses to the city of Ullistai, in the south west of Mongolia where I lived with a nomadic family. I was totally immersed in Mongolian life and really got a feel for things, the hardships faced, what makes people tick, where the food comes from, where people wash… everything. Its an experience that was very far from what I’m used to, but I realised that this type of immersion into different cultures is what I loved most about this trip, and with that in mind that experience deserves a blog of its own, so bear with me!
From Ullistai I headed back to UB where I had a day or two to spare before heading home. It was nice to be in the city and be able to relax, which I hadn’t done when I was initially there before starting to ride, and I spent my time wandering round the lesser seen areas enjoying the things that I came across. Ulaanbaatar is a totally unique city; a perfect compromise between traditional Mongolian culture and modern city life. Huge areas of the city are ‘Ger District’; very similar to the ones I had come across in the towns and cities in other parts of the country, but on a much larger scale. It struck me that even here, the capital, less than a mile from the city banks, high rise business towers and government buildings, people were living in tents, with no sanitation services and no access to running water. You have to travel to a pump station with your buckets.
At 5am, local time on Wednesday the 15th Jun, I set off via taxi to Mongolia’s only international airport. After a few tense moments in an interrogation room where they thought my tripod was a gun, I flew to Moscow. I had a 10-hour lay over in Moscow and then flew to Heathrow, landing just after 10pm local time. Although I had also lost 8 hours through time difference. It felt good to be back in England, and the fact I had a small welcome party at the airport gate made it even better. The drive home was all on dark motorways so I didn’t see anything from the window.
Which takes me back to waking up on Thursday morning and looking out of the window, I was and still am finding my self totally taken aback by the deep greens and vivid colours. We live in an incredibly beautiful country and it’s easy to take that for granted.
The other thing that strikes me is things, possessions… We all have so many things, do we really need them all? Do we really need that new scarf that matches the jacket, or a new phone or whatever it might be? The conclusion that I have come to is that in some instances we do, in the society that we live in realistically it is nice to have some luxuries, but we don’t ‘need’ them. And it’s important to remember that certain things are luxuries, and think ourselves lucky that we have access to them. We also need to be selective about our possessions and we need to think about where they are coming from. We also need to think about what the ramifications of our consumer society have else where in the world. It’s up to us to take responsibility!
Its great to be home, great to be back with my friends and family and doing the things I love at home, but there is certainly a part of me that wishes I was still out on the bike, in the middle of nowhere with the wind for company. I miss sleeping under the stars, battling for food and water and constantly moving on. Whilst I was out there I was living a very simple life, and coming back to the complexity that we are used to have their pros and cons, but a part of me longs for the simplicity.
My over-riding thoughts on Mongolia are that it’s an incredible country. It’s the most amazing place to travel, a beautiful landscape and I think a very up and coming country. We will for sure be hearing much more about Mongolia in the next few years, and I think that is a great thing. If anyone gets an opportunity get yourself out there, I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
(The cup doesn't lie, I love riding my bike even more than I did before now)
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(In Hatgal I finally managed to wash some clothes. This minus a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt has been my wardrobe for the past two months. Everything subsequently froze)
I sat in Hatgal, in my tent, snow falling outside, contemplating my next move… It was simple, ride 100km to Moron and from there 300km to Bulgan, sell the bike, find a way of getting back to UB and head to the Gobi desert for my last few days.
But I couldn’t help a little niggle at the back of my mind; Moron to Bulgan is another 300km of open steppe, a scenery that I have grown to love and really respect, but also one that, as much as I hate to admit it, can become a little monotonous as you tick the kilometres off. Particularly whilst riding on a paved road (which it is all the way to Bulgan). The scenery changes very little, you might not see a living creature for 50km, sometimes more, your lost in your own thoughts and forced to keep yourself company.
This solitude and isolation can begin to play on your mind; it starts to get very lonely! In places it’s so bleak that a bird in the sky, or distant herd of goats add welcome variety, and in a strange way companionship.. I couldn’t help but think that the 4 days I would spend riding to Bulgan I could spend more productively somewhere else, on some other form of transport, one capable of covering the vast distances much quicker than I can on the bike. It would give me an opportunity to see more of this incredible country.
(The beautiful, but bleak landscape I had become so accustomed to)
But I’m not one to give in or give up, and I didn’t want to stray from the plan I had made. Making targets and giving myself no option but to achieve them is what has kept me going in the moments I was finding things hard, and as of yet I had achieved every target I had set myself, I didn’t want to change that now. I really didn’t know what to do.
Finally I decided to ride the 100km to Moron, I was confident I could do it in a day, and see how I felt at the end. I would use that to make up my mind, and for the first 80km of that day I was going to be continuing to Bulgan.
(Psyched for the big drop down into Moron)
But then the road changed, the last 20km to Moron drops down from the mountains into the valley. Some 1000m of vertical descent over the 20km, the majority of which falls away fast at the very top. This was a decent I had been looking forward to for weeks, it was getting late and I had promised myself a proper bed for the night as well as a proper meal, and that in itself was very appealing. I couldn’t wait to cruse down the switchback mountain road, wind in my hair, enjoying the ride to the promised home comforts. I stopped at the top and ate my last snickers, drank some water and started to descend.
Picking up speed fast over the steep top section I pulled my front brake to keep everything under control… and POP… The brake lever was firmly against my grip, and I was still accelerating… I pulled the back brake… POP… same story…. It took me a minute to register what was happening then it hit me…
‘OH SH*T’ was the first thing that sprung to mind, and the second was to shout “MY BRAKES HAVE FAILED”. Still picking up speed I realised I had to think of something fast, I rammed my foot between the fork and the tyre, and in a cloud of white smoke and burning rubber (I thought you could only get that doghnuting cars, but apparently not), I began to slow down.
I finally came to a standstill and assessed the damage, the pistons had popped of the springs in the brake calliper so when the cable pulled nothing happened, and the pistons were in a sealed housing so virtually impossible to get to. In short they were broken beyond point of repair on the side of the mountain.
I walked the bike for the top steepest 5km, and then would get on and coast down the hill, picking my places to do so carefully where I could see there was a rise further down the road I could use to slow me down. The combined weight of myself and all my kit on the bike meant I would accelerate fast, and I just had to ride it out until I slowed on the slight inclines. Either side of the road was a gravel siding, and 10 metres or so in the gravel would slow me down a lot.
Eventually I pulled into Moron, found somewhere to stay and spent a little while sat enjoying the fact I made it without falling off the bike and skinning myself on the tarmac, I was actually quite shaken by the descent it was pretty full on.
My mind was made up, Bulgan was a town too far, pushing on would be pointless and within an hour I had found someone willing to buy the bike.
(The smile didn't leave his face for two days)
Everything had come together and I realised that my cycling was over. I couldn’t really work out what was in my head, I was sad to see the end of the bike trip; it had been the most incredible experience. I have truly learnt things, seen things and done things that will stay with me and I think shape me for the rest of my life. Cycling in this land had put so many things into prospective, and made me really think about life and how I want to live it. Bringing this to a close was certainly difficult, but at the same time there was a sense of relief. It had been a tough few months in a lot of ways and drawing a line beneath this let me relax a little.
But then I saw my bike coming up the road, 3 kids on the bike, 2 in the trailer, all wearing a grin from ear to ear. With each pedal stroke the rider had to let the pedal make the bottom third or so of each stroke on its own because his legs weren’t quite long enough to follow it all the way round, even with the seat as low as it would go. I knew at that moment I had made the right decision.
(For sure a highlight of camping has been the incredible star displays each night)
I began to make inquiries into how to spend my last few days, and through a newly acquainted friend Sandag, was put in touch with a Nomadic family in the west. To meet with them I needed to go to Ullistai, only 300km south west of where I was, but with Mongolia being Mongolia the only way to get there was to get a 16 hour bus to UB and then a 23 hour bus from there to Ullistai. A journey with a total distance of some 2000km… Much of which was on dirt roads.
Mongolian busses are an adventure in their own; firstly there is the challenge of getting a ticket. Pointing at a collection of Cyrillic letters that I really hoped were indeed for my intended destination I managed to explain with hand gestures that I was after a single ticket for the following day.
Then you have the busses themselves, rusty old looking things that squeak at every bump (continuous doesn’t even cover the frequency of these on dirt roads).
(this was by a very long way the most luxurious bus I took, the others were considerably older. Photo taken during one of the breakdown stops)
From what I could gather the busses were imported second hand from China or most likely Japan. It’s hard to date them but I would say they were built some time in the nineties, and have had a pretty tough life. The interiors are simple, but all had some kind of TV screen hanging from the roof that played a continuous loop of Mongolian music videos. Every bus was rammed full, every seat filled, and a pretty special atmosphere. The length of the journey meant all the locals would greet each other and make friends. The whole trip was accompanied with the sound of people singing along to the videos on the TV.
Break downs are common, and on two of my three bus journeys we have broken down. The first time was something to do with the electrics and the second time was that the suspension broke. Fortunately the drivers (there are always two) double as mechanics and both times we were back on the road within 30 mins. It seems that no matter how serious the problem these guys can get it sorted with ease and minimal tools.
(the internal view of the bus above, note the tv at the front)
It was interesting seeing peoples reaction to me on the busses, on each journey I had a continual rotation of people in the seat next to me, at one point a mother and very cute and playful baby, and at another a very drunk man. The person who stayed the longest was a middle aged woman who fell asleep, her head landing on my shoulder where it stayed for over 8 hours, me needing a wee more and more but not having the heart to wake her up at any of the frequent wee stops.
Briefly stopping in UB I continued on to Ullistai where I spent time living with a lovely local family. It was fascinating to see more of the’ true’ Mongolian life that I had experienced whilst riding but never stayed in one place long enough to really understand. It was grat to get an insight into such a considered and thught out, yet simple and relaxed way of life. I’m going to hold you in suspense for the details of such a life for my next blog.
(Enjoying the view from the top of the mountain. The pole next to me is an Ovoo, a Buddhist/ Shaman shrine with the blue cloth representing the sky gods)
In the mean time, I am still here having the time of my life. Loving the experiences, the people and the stories. But at the same time I’m looking forward to returning to the UK, and a good cup of tea!!
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(Me, Loving Life right now!)
Touring by bicycle is a truly incredible way to travel; it gives you the most amazing sense of freedom. It puts you right there on the ground vulnerable to the weather and whatever the road may throw at you… And it’s the raw-ness and vulnerability that makes it so great. It gives you a perch from which to see the real nuts and bolts of a place, see how things work, how people live and what makes them tick… This is a privileged insight that I believe would be much harder to attain whilst travelling on other forms of transport, and because of this I can only sing praises for touring by bicycle!!
I’m in a small town called Khotont, about 170km south of the Russian border and on the southernmost tip of the infamous Khovsgul Lake, the second largest lake in Mongolia that is estimated to hold between 1% and 2% of the world’s fresh water Its currently still semi frozen. I have hit and surpassed the 1000km mark on the bike and it’s been one hell of a trip to get here!
Since leaving Karkhorin (my last blog post), I rode 130km west to a city named Tsetserleg, the road was paved but I started to climb into the mountains meaning the scenery began to change. The rolling steppe gradually evolved into steep, loose rocky mountains and the temperatures began to drop. Being in the mountains also meant that there were a lot more rivers around, you could almost visibly see the land surrounding me get greener and greener as the KM ticked by. The road to Tsetserleg rises steeply to a peak from which you can see the city sprawled before you, you then drop down into the city along a KM or two of gentle descent.
(The City of Tsetserleg)
Tsetserleg is a province capital nestled between rocky mountains and is labelled as a city, but infact it is more like a small town. With a population of only around 22,000, which for Mongolia is huge, although really it’s not so big. Everything revolves around a small market in the centre, where you can find stalls selling pretty much all the essentials. There are restaurants, a college and a number of other services around. The locals generally live in Ger’s, spread around the centre.
(Horse Meat for sale in the market, Tsetserleg)
By the time I arrived in Tsetserleg the bike was not in a good way, I had hugely underestimated the importance of spreading weight around the bike evenly, meaning that my luggage was spread between my trailer and my rear panniers, but all going through the back wheel. Putting it under a huge amount of strain, that it was struggling to deal with. The poor distribution of weight also meant that the bike was pretty unstable and hard to control, particularly going down… Fortunately the road from UlaanBaatar (UB) thus far had been pretty much constantly uphill.
I was lucky to come across the Fairfield Guest house, run by Australian Murray and his family who helped me enormously by lending me a front pannier rack and set of rear pannier bags to distribute the weight more evenly, which has made a huge difference to the handling of the bike.
(Spreading the weight is key to bike stability, Here you can see my new set up)
From Tsetserleg I headed again west to a town called Tairat and the white lake. The road is mostly paved, although you cross 3 mountain passes en route that are left as dirt road to make sure that vehicles can get grip during periods of snow. This section of road remains pretty consistently uphill, although the ‘hills’ are considerably steeper. I also hit some pretty rough weather, a day of 50km/h headwind made moving forward very hard… And keeping the tent up even harder, but fortunately I managed to find an old animal enclosure that I could hide the tent in for the night. I actually got a pretty good night sleep.
(This abandoned animal shelter provided a great wind block)
I woke up the next morning to driving rain, which as I got higher over the next two days gradually turned to sleet and then snow. Again this made riding hard, but what I hadn’t realised is that the snow would turn out to have much more serious consequences over the next few days.
Upon arrival in Tairat it felt like I had reached the end of the world. It’s a small town, maybe only 4 or 5 thousand people, there is a semi constructed ‘high street’ that consists of a couple of small restaurants, a few shops and that’s about it. There is no ATM or Internet connection to mention and even electricity proved pretty hard to come by. It really felt a little like stepping back in time, and reminded me greatly of towns you would see on the sets of cowboy films.
(A view of the white lake, 10km west of Tairat. In the foreground you can see the tepee, this is a shaman shrine and they are common place on most Mongolian hill tops. Often decorated with blue and yellow silks and filled with offerings)
What I hadn’t realised was that the snow from the previous days would infact bar my way, the 120km track crossing the +3000m mountain pass would be impossible. Even the serious off-road 4x4’s were not up for making the trip, so I found myself stranded in Tairat. I had 3 options.
- The first was to try to hitch a lift with a lorry back to UB, to then hitch from there along the upper road to Moron, although that was an option that I really didn’t like the idea of.
- Option two was to try and get a lift on a lorry heading west, to travel 200km to a cross road where I could then try to catch a second ride back east about 200km to Moron. I heard varying reports of road conditions on this route, certainly only the first 100 was paved and I was told few vehicles travelled the route heading back east. I spent a day by the side of the road trying to get a lift but in more than 8 hours only 5 lorries passed me, 4 of which were oil tankers carrying fuel that I couldn’t get the bike on and the final one was so full of supplies that I couldn’t get the bike in there either… So that option was also a no-go.
- The third option was to try and get a lift with a local van about 200km around the mountain range to a town called Jarglant, on the dirt road… Thankfully I managed to come across a lift and made the trip in only a few hours. The rickety van somehow made the very rough trip without too much problem, definitely not helped by the copious amounts of beer the driver drank throughout the journey.
(The bike loaded up for the bumpy 200km trip to Jarglant, the trailer was on the back seats)
From Jarglant it’s around 200km off-road to Moron, still in the mountains and through some pretty steep and tough terrain. Its definitely the hardest riding that I have come across so far and without the road navigation was also much more important. There are 3 major mountain ridges to pass over, the largest of which saw me pushing the bike uphill for 7 hours, in which time I covered only 12 km. Thankfully the simple law of what goes up must come down came into play and I greatly enjoyed weaving down the peaty hillside.
(View from my camping spot in Jarglant. The mountains in the distance were the ones that I would cross over the next few days)
The following day for the first time I ran out of water, and for 6 thirsty hours I was panicking… Although luckily before too long I came across a nomadic Ger who filled my bottles for me with a smile.
At the top of the third mountain ridge the altitude is around 2500M, and from here there is a solid 30km descent dropping down to Moron (1250M) in the valley below. The top section was very rocky, and saw me break 2 more spokes on the rear wheel… But the rocks soon gave way to flowing, fast grassy tracks that allowed me to enjoy (although gingerly due to the back wheel) a great descent. The final 5 km or so are very sandy, but compact so still fast and around 8pm, hungry and totally exhausted I pulled into Moron.
(Out of granny gear for the first time in 3 days!!)
I really don’t like Coke, but the first thing I did in Moron was buy a 2 litre bottle (for the equivalent of about 90 pence), and drank it on the spot… which made me feel much better!!
I spent a day resting in Moron, and enjoyed losing myself in the huge market. It’s much bigger than the one in Tsetserleg and you could buy pretty much anything… Including boiled goat head, which is supposedly quite a delicacy in these parts, I will take the Mongols word for it! You can also find lots of street food stalls selling Hoshuur and Buuz, a tasty either fried or steamed dumpling filled with meat (I have given up trying to work out from what animal) and if your lucky some onion too. I really think that there is a potentially very lucrative market for these simple treats as an alternative to a kebab on a big night out.
(Boiled Goat head, all intact)
From Moron I headed north, again uphill toward Khotont. I was hoping to make the 100km in a day, but hadn’t accounted for the initial 30km of solid uphill that saw me rise around 1000 vertical metres. This was to be my lowest day so far, and for the first time I was really questioning what I was doing out here. I felt really lonely and dreamt of being back at home, surrounded by the people I love. I learnt a lot about myself that day and about how to deal with myself and keep moving at such a low point.
At 65 km, after 10 hours on the bike and totally exhausted I set up my tent in a semi built log cabin, ate a quick meal of pasta and fell straight asleep. 3 hours later I woke up, my tent buried in about 2 foot of drifting snow. For the rest of the night I had to periodically dig the walls of the tent out to stop the snow from collapsing it, and when the sun rose the blizzard continued as strong as ever. Realising that riding was going to be impossible I made myself some millet (My standard breakfast, with at least 5 spoons of sugar, although I dream of porridge) and a coffee whilst weighing up the options, lying warm inside my sleeping bag unaware of the fact the weather had deteriorated further outside. I was preparing to spent the next few days holed up, which would have been fine except that apart from the millet I had run out of food, Fortunately this wasn’t necessary as once again I was saved by the wonderful nomads.
Because of the driving snow visibility was less than 10 metres, out of the wall of white appeared a man, who ushered for me to follow him. Leaving my tent and all my gear where it was I did follow him, and for about an hour (it felt like 10). We battled through the snow, eventually turning up at a ger, the mans family home.
(Me and my two new friends)
Without realising I found myself in a small town, maybe you would call it a hamlet, so small it wasn’t marked on my map. The family consisted of Mother, Father and two wonderful small girls, 10 and 13. I was hosted for 2 days with the family whilst waiting for the weather to improve and was welcomed with open arms. I spent the time viewing daily life, and where I could helping out. I showed the girls how to make toast; something I don’t think they had come across before and they thought it was the best thing in the world!
(Two Loving sisters)
What’s sad is that the closer I get to the Russian Border the more and more I see the effects of vodka, and vodka was a big part of daily life for the parents of this family. Now maybe Its because it was the weekend, or maybe its because the snow had brought things to a stand still but both days I stayed the parents by early afternoon were drunk to a point of incapability to do anything, leaving the running of the home to the two girls. It was saddening to see such a burden put on the girls shoulders and I really wished I could find some way of helping the situation. The fact of the matter is I think this is a part of daily life here, and a problem that I know many people are trying to find ways to assist, but I fear the imminent future is bleak.
(Its an extremely sad reality the affects of Alcohol here, this was part way through the second bottle of the day)
The second evening I stayed, with both parents passed out and snoring loudly I felt something move beside me whilst I was drifting off to sleep. I rolled over to find the youngest daughter lying next to me. She gave me a big hug and fell straight asleep on my chest… a moment I found very moving and that will stay with me forever.
The next morning I left early and walked back to the bike, I rode the remaining 45km or so through the snow to arrive in Khotont. From here I have restocked with supplies and plan to head on up the west shore of the lake. Its incredibly beautiful, and much more forested. I’m keeping my plans very fluid, and am not really sure where I’m going to head after returning from my trip around the lake, I will just see what happens.
I have made contact with 2 French cyclists heading the same direction as me, they are a couple of days behind me but I’m hoping to connect up with them and we will see what happens from there.
(Giving my legs a quick rest before pushing on up the next hill, this was taken about 40km east of Tairat)
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(Buddhist Prayer wheels in one of the many monasteries that can be found around Kharkhorin)
I came across a phrase last week that states any decision you make should be made within 7 breaths, if it takes more than 7 then you shouldn’t go with it. I’m also learning rapidly that whilst travelling being flexible is essential… After all plans are made to be changed.
With that in mind, when I came across an opportunity to travel for a few days through the mountains of the Khuisiin Naiman Nuur nature reserve (Which translates to English simply as 8 lakes) by horse, it certainly took me less than 7 breaths to work out it was an opportunity not to be missed.
(My sure footed ride from the last few days)
Khuisiin Naiman Nurr Nature reserve is a UNESCO protected world heritage site that lies in the mountains between Tsetserleg and Arvaikheer. This incredible area is very rugged and dramatic, with mountains, large areas of grassland, vast boulder fields and a river that cuts right through the centre. It’s a harsh environment that is inhabited with equally as hardy man and beast. You will often find herds of horse, yak or goat in the area, all of whom have adapted to cope with the harsh weather with thick coats, that at this time of year they are beginning to shed.
(Jahrno, one of the local herders with an incredible knowledge of the local landscape)
The local Nomads here are typical of all Nomads I have been fortunate enough to come across so far, they live in Ger’s, with a central stove that burns constantly either on wood or dung. Each stove is a work of practical art, adapted perfectly for heating, cooking, cleaning… I even saw one being used for blacksmithing! They really are a do anything piece of equipment. The pace of life seemed perfect, fairly slow and relaxed with days filled with tending to livestock, maintaining the Ger’s and vehicles (Most families had a small Korean truck and a motorbike or two, all of which required frequent maintenance), and other essential day to day tasks. There was no stress or rushing like we are used to in the west, simply getting on with life. Plenty of time is also set aside for enjoying Milk tea, which as the name suggests is a green tea boiled in milk and salt to create a warming, refreshing drink that is perfect as you come in from the cold.
(A typical nomadic Ger camp)
It’s safe to say horse riding is not my strong point, and it’s not something that I have done much of at all in the past. I was certainly ‘thrown in at the deep end’ and quickly found myself on top of a horse; I had little control over, on a narrow mountain pass with some pretty steep slopes to either side. Or we could be crossing a gushing river, or picking our way through a boulder field. My tactic soon became to trust the horse and let it pick its own way through the landscape it knows so well, and thankfully that tactic payed off. The horses were incredible; there was seemingly no obstacle too big to stand in their way.
When on the second day I woke up to a 4 inch blanket of snow and blizzarding conditions I really wondered whether I would be able to keep up and pull my weight, there was much discussion (all in Mongolian, so at the time I had no idea what was going on), until eventually a decision was made to try and push forward, we rode in the snow, which was truly incredible and again I was pleased to be atop such a sure footed animal.
(Sunset over one of the lakes we visited with the mountains in the background. The lake still had a thick layer of ice in the centre but was beginning to thaw around the edges)
It was in the snow that we saw the first of the lakes, still semi frozen at this time of year but lying against a surreal mountainous landscape. It struck me as a truly wild place, but also a truly natural place. I found it strange to see a landscape with no sign of human habitatation, not even walls or fences.
By two in the afternoon the snow had virtually all disappeared, and you could almost see the green grass begin to sprout its first shoots. You can tell summer is on its way here; it just can’t quite push through just yet.
(Its hard to believe that only a few hours before this image was taken there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground)
Whilst in the valley I was welcomed to stay with a number of Nomadic herders, as I have expressed already the people here are incredible, so warm and welcoming and each night I was presented with warm food and a bed, along with plenty of milk tea and slept in the Ger’s along with the families. It was a really nice opportunity to get an even more in depth view of life here.
(This lady was the mother of one of the families I stayed with, she was really very special, skilled and had a great sense of humour)
The thing I found hardest with the riding was the stress it put on my muscles. My legs are not used to being sat in the position they were on top of the horse for any period of time, and I was told in retrospect that the wooden Mongolian saddles are notorious for being sore to ride on if your not used to them. My legs, which were already sore from the cycle, became very stiff and painful and I struggled to keep up as anything faster than a walk on the horse.
(A thunderstorm over the outskirts of the town of Kharkhorin. Following this was a hail storm with hailstones the size of golf balls falling from the sky)
I’m now back in Kharkhorin, and preparing to set out again once again on the bike. I have actually found myself really looking forward to getting back on the road. I’m looking forward to seeing what I will come across on the way. The next section takes me up into the mountains, the bit I have been really looking forward to. There will be much more climbing, from what I can tell a little over 1000 metres in the next 300km or so and the weather will get harsher, but the scenery is promising to be stunning which will certainly make up for it. I’m not expecting ‘nature road’ as the translation seems to be here for a few days yet but I’m looking forward to getting onto it reasonably soon. The condition of the road is reported to be different from everyone that I ask, but I’m expecting it to be reasonable for the foreseeable future.
[Written 3 days ago but posted today, Thursday 28th, due to intermittent wifi].
(Me and the bike taken roadside on the third day).
As day 7 on the bike draws to a close I write this from the comfort of a warm Ger, with a hot stove and a sugary tea. I’m in a town called Karkhorin, (pronounced by locals Har-Horum). It’s a small town seemingly based around industry that has long since disappeared. On the surface it seems like any other small Mongolian town, but what I hadn’t realised is that at one point (in the12th century) Karkhorin was in fact the capital of the Mongol empire, an empire that spanned much of Asia, Russia and even as far west as Europe. I’m about 400km west of Ulaanbaatar, across the Mongol Els and getting toward the big mountains.
Cycling across Mongolia so far has not been how I expected at all, not that I really know what I was expecting. The cycling is hard, but I can rapidly feel myself getting fitter and even as the distances get longer and ascent gets steeper I’m managing without too much issue. The biggest problem I’m facing is the wind. Because of the vast expanses of steppe the winds can build up rapidly, and are consistently very strong, as is seemingly always the case whilst riding a bike they also constantly blow into my face.
(A night in the outhouse of an old hotel, I wrapped my sleeping bag in my tent flysheet to try and keep it as clean as possible).
The problem the wind brings is that it means that I cannot keep my tent up overnight; no matter how many stones I load onto the pegs or how big the wall I build around the edge. So I find myself each day searching for some kind of alternative shelter that I can lay down behind to get some sleep. The reality of this is that this is that I’m consistently managing to find shelter and that I’m sleeping well, however I’m finding mentally it difficult with the uncertainty about if and where I will be able to sleep and if the weather will hold out to allow me to sleep, Its quite a scary thought to each day push on into the unknown but I keep reminding myself that the same feeling comes each day, and each day I’m absolutely fine. I also find myself wishing I had brought a bivy bag.
(Sleeping under the stars next to a Buddhist monument).
What I have over the last few days come to realise though is that this uncertainty is actually a huge plus to my trip. It means that rather than hiding away in a tent alone, I am each day reaching out to the locals, meeting people, families, integrating into the communities and getting a true taste of this incredible country. I’m hugely fortunate that up to this point the people here have been hugely accommodating, and have welcomed me into their homes with open arms. I’m ensuring that this is not something that I rely on solely, but if offered I am thoroughly enjoying being given a glimpse into peoples lives one night at a time.
(Two Mongol boys I had the pleasure of spending the evening with comparing and fixing each others bikes).
I had heard before I set out of the nomadic culture of helping each other out in order to maintain ones self in this environment, but had not realised the extent to which the nomads take this hospitality. Its truly an amazing way of living, with such huge trust in one another… even total strangers, and has certainly taught me lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I truly think that a lot can be said for trusting one another, and think that there is a huge amount that can be learnt from this culture.
The scenery has been much the same since Ulaanbaatar, large rolling dusty hills, with the odd section of sand dune here and there. It’s very arid and wild and really gives you a sense of being ‘out there’ and very remote. There is little in the way of greenery or grass and even less plants. I have probably seen less than 100 trees since arriving. The road so far has been reasonably good, asphalt all the way. There have been sections where it’s been very broken up but these last for a maximum of 15km and then you are back onto a good sealed tarmac once again. Water so far has been impossible to come by whilst on the road, so I have been ensuring to carry plenty to see me through no matter what happens. I have a 2 litre emergency bottle that has remained full since UB. On the nights I have slept wild I have tended to eat either pasta or noodles, both of which over here are super tasty… although I dread to think what’s actually in the flavouring packet of the noodles. During the daytime I’m finding it hard to stomach much ‘proper’ food, so find myself eating lots of snickers, sweets, nuts and raisins to keep myself energised.
Noodles seem also to be very popular with the locals, particularly the kids. One little boy springs to mind who found me slurping in noodles from the fork massively amusing, and even more so when he did it himself. And was completely over the moon when I gave him two packets.
(The boy to the far right was a particular fan of noodles, this family were hugely welcoming to me and really came to my rescue when I was in need).
The riding can at times be very lonely, particularly when you know you are 80km either way from the nearest town and that you haven’t seen a vehicle for the past 3 hours, but at these times I’m finding that before long I will always come across a herd of livestock with a friendly shepherd following behind on a motorbike or horse, or I will be able to see the distinct outline of a Ger off in the distance that reminds me that there are people around. Its also nice that up until this point the road has been fairly travelled, and although there can be quiet periods generally there is a vehicle (usually something like a coach that you are surprised has made it so far on such a rough surface), at least every few hours.
In Karkhorin (everyone seems to spell it differently, this spelling is off my map), I am staying in a tourist Ger camp with a lovely atmosphere. Its basically a collection of small 4 person Ger’s around a family’s main Ger, and as I’m the only person staying I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into the family for meals and to drink tea. There are showers, a toilet, proper beds and even Wifi (although its pretty intermittent); I am quite enjoying the fact that these things at the moment all feel like luxury!! I have a very homely Ger all to myself with a stove that keeps me warm and requires tending to throughout the night. I have decided to stay here for a couple of days, have some time to rest and explore the town before heading out again on the next leg on Friday. There is also said to be a thunderstorm coming on Thursday so I’m sure I will be pleased with the shelter when that comes.
(A long anticipated sign letting me know I was on the right road and getting close).
It’s difficult to try and compress all that has happened into a short readable post, so there is much that I have had to miss out. But I have been careful to make sure I get as much as possible on film and in pictures, so more intimate and detailed stories will come in those formats in the future.
(One of many roadside shrines, they are believed to bring good luck and safe passage to drivers. From what I understand the blue flags also symbolise long life. (The direct translation of blue is old, referring to age and length of life)).
I’m absolutely loving life out here, it’s the most amazing country and no matter how difficult it feels at the time its so worth it. I would truly urge anyone who finds themselves in a position where they are able to do so, pick a road find a bike and go and ride it, you wont regret it!! I will update again as soon as I can.
Its the close of my second day in UlaanBataar, and what an incredible city! My flights all went impressively smoothly, and 7am (UB time) yesterday morning me, my two bags and my bike stood in the sun outside the Chinggis Khaan International airport. A persistent taxi driver eventually persuaded me that his beaten up, un taxi-branded Prius was the vehicle to get me to my accommodation. (I have since realised that no taxis here are branded as taxis, and that 95% of them are beaten up Prius's, but at the time I still wasn't sure if I would ever get out of the car). The trip from the airport to where Im staying was about 25 minutes, and allowed me to have a good look at the city. Being early on a Sunday morning meant it was quiet too which was nice.
Upon arrival I spent much of yesterday recovering from the flight and getting my bearings. The main street in the city, Peace Avenue, is a 5 minute walk and along there is where most of the shops and restaurants can be found. Locating shops is interesting as all the names and descriptions are written in Mongolian Crylic and shop windows don't really seem to be a thing here, I guess a good way to get you into the shops to see whats inside. After some tame wandering I retired to bed as I knew I had an early start to come.
Today I had two main goals, the first to get my Visa extension and the second to get hold of a Mongolian sim so that I can make contact with the relevant people if at any point required. I managed to achieve both of these by 1pm, although not without transport mishap.
In order to get my visa extension I needed to go to the Mongolian Immigration Office, around 15 KM outside of the city close to the airport and I decided to go by bus. The busses here are nothing like at home. The numbers don't seem to mean anything, and most of them don't even have numbers. I had worked out with the help of the owner of my hotel that the number 9 bus was the one that I needed, but I soon realised that its not as simple as that. Upon arrival at the bus stop I spent close to 45 minutes sat watching and trying to work out how the busses worked, and it seems that you jump on the first bus that arrives thats travelling in roughly the right direction, pay 1000 MNT (about 30p) into the box at the front and see where you end up, this was the tactic that I went for and it didn't go so well. I realised that after a few turns I was heading in the opposite direction to the airport so got off that bus, got on another that was heading in the right direction and finally arrived.
Getting my visa extension was easy, I turned up, filled in the form with attached photo, gave it to one of the attendants at the counter along with a photocopy of my passport and visa and waited for it to be inspected. I then got a post-it note with a few words and numbers on that I took to the bank, which conveniently was in the same building. You pay your money, go back to the attendant with a receipt give it to him wait about 40 minutes and then I was given my passport back with a 30 day extension, which takes me to my flight home.
Feeling very pleased with myself I headed to the airport where there is a MobiCon (supposedly the best network for signal in the remote areas) office to sort a sim card. This too was fairly straight forward, and I'm now up and running with a phone.
I have realised that flying across the country to Ulaangom is going to be tricky and expensive because of the added weight of my bike so I have decided to change my plans. Rather than fly to Ulaangom I'm going to set off on the bike from here, heading west toward Ulaangom and I will see how far I get. I have spent a long time looking at the map and have realised that there are lots of options for circular routes that I can take depending on the weather the conditions of the roads etc and I will just see how it goes. After all the destination isn't important, its the journey thats important, and meeting people and experiencing the cultures along the way. By doing it this way I will be much more flexible and under much less time pressure so will be able to take in more of the country.
The only problem is that the GPS that I brought with me is old, and has decided that this is a trip too far so has stopped working, I'm therefore back to traditional navigation which is no real issue other than my map is 1;50,000 so not very detailed and I now have no way of measuring distance covered, but I am tomorrow going to try and get hold of some more detailed province maps that will also have place names written in crylic which will be better for translation.
My plan is to stock up tomorrow on all the necessary food, water and supplies and head out from the city on Wednesday.
(Here is a phone photo of the sunrise view as I landed in Ulaanbaatar. These hills can be found surrounding the city and its a view that makes me a little apprehensive but super exited for whats to come).
(The Mongolian flag, Source CRW flags)
Cycling across Mongolia, on my own, on a bike felt for a long time as if it was just a plan, something that would be incredible... but it really didn't feel as if it was something that was going to happen to me. It's the kind of thing I have dreamt of since I was a kid, but it's rapidly become no longer just a plan for the future but something thats really happening! And its an adventure that begins in less than two weeks.
Over the past month word has really got out about this trip and its immensely humbling to hear peoples reactions. So many people have been so incredibly helpful; offering advice, tips, past experiences and even lending me equipment to help me out en route. It feels as though many people are pretty psyched on the idea, which is really nice to see. Some people have admitted not understanding the motive, or commented that they wouldn't want to do it themselves, others have said that maybe I'm a little bit crazy but non of these make anyone any less supportive, Its great to see the different ways in which people react.
One question that that I'm asked often is 'aren't you scared?', and if I'm honest I really struggle to answer that question because I don't really know? I'm certainly apprehensive, but aren't you always before you step into an unfamiliar situation?
I think the over riding emotion in my head is excitement, I can't wait to feel the freedom that will come with having everything I need packed into a small trailer and sustaining myself in what promises to be an incredible landscape for a fairly substantial period of time. I'm looking forward to being remote, away from the draws and ties of everyday life and slowing everything right down, going to a place where days of the week or dates are meaningless and all that matters is traveling forward. I'm looking forward to meeting new people and spending time learning about a very different culture. I love the fact that being on the bike will mean that I'm travelling slowly and will have time to properly immerse myself in the local way of life. I think the apprehension and unknowing adds a huge amount of excitement to the whole equation as well as a little pre trip apprehension.
Those things in mind there are also things I'm worried about, the most significant of which is being on my own for long periods of time. I love being around other people and strive to try and spend as much time with others as possible, therefore the thought of potentially going days without coming across another person do play on my mind a little, I'm not looking for solitude at all but its part and parcel of this trip and I'm interested to see how I react to this as a person.
Being on my own also means that If something does go wrong its down to me to sort it out, and that is a thought that has crossed my mind a few times. I strongly believe though that there is no point letting the what if's ruin the present moment. If something goes wrong I will have to find a way to sort it out, I have to trust myself that I can sort whatever it is out. It's this kind of unknown that adds to the whole adventure.
Virtually everything is in place now, the bike is ready, the kit is set, the camera system is all in order and the paperwork is ready to go, its safe to say I'm just super exited!
( A typical view of a section of Mongolian steppe. Note the road, and lack of tarmac. Image credit: Mark Leong, National Geographic archive). How on earth do you start a blog? Well I guess you just explain it from the top...
I strongly believe that if you get an opportunity to do something different and exciting you should jump at it... And it just so happens one of those opportunities came my way. I'm finding myself in a very fortunate position where I have a window of time to do something different and out there... the question simply was what to do?
For years I have been drawn to central Asia, particularly Mongolia. I have been looking for an oppertunity to go and explore such a beautiful and untamed place, and spend some time learning more about its people. After much thought, discussion and selling of things on eBay I have hatched a plan...
I plan to make an attempt to cross Mongolia... On a Bike!! I will be un supported and solo, carrying everything I need for the trip with me on the bike. I will be filming the whole thing, and naturally taking photographs at every opportunity too. Wherever possible this blog will be updated, although unfortunately how often during the trip remains to be seen as internet access is something of a rarity in the wilds of Mongolia.
(The Altai Mountains, Image credit: Wikipedia)
Mountains are another thing that seem to constantly attract me, and Mongolia has some large mountains. In the north west near the Chinese, Russian and Khazak border lie the Altai mountains. A beautiful range with peaks exceeding 4000m, the opportunity to spend time climbing and exploring here gives me an ideal starting point for my route.
(Intended route, image sourced from Google Maps).
Above you can see the intended route. This is only a rough plan to give an idea about distance, the actual route remains to be worked out in a much more spontaneous manner.
Planning is well on its way, the list of things to nail down is getting shorter by the day, which is lucky as the departure date is the 16th of April!!
Keep an eye out here to see whats going on.